Not your average gift shop

Artbeat

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Touristy gift shops are often filled with shot glasses and useless trinkets – places to buy souvenirs that seem like a good idea at the time. The mementoes hold the memories of a good time while vacationing and may get some shelf space or be a treasure to a child for a while. Visit Oak Park, on the other hand, is a different type of tourism destination and is working to change that image with Urban Local Made, displaying hand-crafted items by local artists in portions of their Lake Street gift shop.

According to Kevin Kilbride, Visit Oak Park's Marketing and Social Media manager, the idea for Urban Local Made came from seeing travelers looking for something different.

"We had been selling wares from a handful of local artists, and since our area's artistic community is so dynamic, widening our selection of these locally-made items made perfect sense," Kilbride said. "Showcasing the work of Chicagoland makers allows us to support small and independent artists who contribute to the distinct character of our community while offering a unique, authentic and hands-on experience for visitors."

Those offerings include affordable hand-thrown pottery, jewelry, cards and wall art made from original paintings, sustainably-sourced wooden kitchen ware, and high-end fine art and objets d'art. Artists come from Chicago, Riverside, St. Charles, Downers Grove, Monee, Berwyn, and Forest Park, with many from Oak Park.

One artist, who has been exhibiting her work at Visit Oak Park for 10 years but is also an Urban Local Made Spring 2018 featured artist, is Hannah Jennings. She paints watercolors of Oak Park landmarks and has been a resident of the community since 1982. Her architecturally accurate renditions include Pleasant Home, the Lake Theater, The Nineteenth Century Club, the Farmers Market, and a variety of Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style masterpieces. The images are softened by flowers and greenery painted more loosely to balance the lines of the accompanying structures. Her works are available on coasters and as digital prints at the store. To date, 400 prints have sold. 

"I love the world you get into when you're doing watercolor — there's pigment and paper and water and it's about the process as much as the product," Jennings said. "I really love every time someone takes one of these that I so enjoyed making and puts it up on their wall."

A designer/illustrator by trade, Jennings' watercolors came later in her career. She started painting the Wright buildings in 2005 when she launched her own business, Hannah Jennings Design, doing book and website design, other design projects and teaching design at Dominican University. Prior to that, Jennings was manager of Design at Brookfield Zoo, creating signage, interpretive graphics and messaging regarding the environment.

Another Oak Parker, John Putnam, features finely crafted ceramic vases and bowls as part of the Urban Local Made project. He adds brush paintings to some pieces, an art form he started before his wife turned his interests to pottery after taking a class at Terra Incognito, according to Putnam's website.

Jewelry from repurposed materials is made by Oak Parker Alix Mikesell. She turns items such as laminate countertop material into lightweight, often reversible discs that dangle from earrings or from a bracelet or combines to create a necklace. Some, she said, "softly rustle as you move."

Other Oak Park-based artist offerings include cards and prints of acrylic floral paintings by Marion Sirefman, large-scale original montage mosaics of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright by Jen McNulty, metal "neckties" by Doug Freerksen, and Kristi Sloniger's Ikebana pottery vases.

Greeting cards and prints of Chicago scenes originally painted in watercolor by Forest Park's Heather Shack, a stroke survivor, are also available. (Forest Park Review ran an article on Shack earlier this year)

"We hope the program inspires anyone who sets foot in the visitors center, whether a resident or out-of-towner, to seek out products and experiences you won't find anywhere but in and around Oak Park," Kilbride said.

Visit Oak Park is open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More: visitoakpark.com/Urban-Local-Made, 708-848-1500. 1010 Lake St.

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